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Sun City in S. Carolina Symbolizes Shifting Retiree Migration Pattern

OUT of thousands of acres of southern pine, construction crews are creating South Carolina's newest city. Dump trucks and bulldozers plow through mounds of charcoal-colored mud, transforming them into man-made lakes and model homes.

Within a few months, the first of nearly 16,000 people 55 and older will move into single-family residences and duplexes on the lush, low-country site 18 miles west of Hilton Head Island.

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They will become part of one of the country's newest - and largest - retirement meccas: ``Sun City Hilton Head.''

This new senior suburb in the forest is emblematic of a subtle but significant shift in retirement patterns in the United States. No longer are Florida, California, and Arizona the only places attracting big numbers of retirees. A growing number of other states across the Sun Belt, from Nevada to the Carolinas, are drawing people to spend their golden years - with important economic implications for the states.

Many retirees are looking for places that are cheaper and more hospitable to live, and states are actively courting seniors. ``Florida is filling up, and as it fills up it becomes slightly less attractive,'' says Bill Haas, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. ``People are starting to say, if I came to escape the large northern urban environments of crime, Florida doesn't offer that anymore.''

The Sunshine State still reigns as the top retirement destination and is in no danger of falling from that spot. It attracts more retirees than California, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania combined - states that draw the largest numbers after Florida.

But, says Charles Longino Jr., a professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., states such as Florida, California, and Arizona are losing some of their share of the pie.

Dr. Longino, author of a recent book on retirement migration patterns, sifted through US Census data and found that between 1975 and 1980, 26.3 percent of all retirees moved to Florida. But from 1985 to 1990 that figure had dropped to 23.8 percent.

States that are catching more of the retirement-age crowd include Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. According to Longino's data, South Carolina jumped from No. 25 in attracting retirees to No. 18.

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``We're just early in the life cycle of this in-migration industry,'' says Patrick Mason, founder of the Center for Carolina Living, a database research and marketing firm in Columbia, S.C. ``We've really been undiscovered.''

The new Sun City here symbolizes the state's growing popularity. The community is being built by Del Webb Corporation, the Phoenix-based company that developed five Sun City retirement meccas in the West.

Its arrival on the East Coast and to this part of South Carolina in particular came after several years of company studies showing the retirement market was ripe here. Retirees like the proximity to Hilton Head and cities such as Savannah and Charleston, the mild climate that offers a change of seasons, and the relatively undeveloped location.

While South Carolina hasn't taken an active role in recruiting retirees, a small number of states, mainly traditionally poor Sun Belt areas such as Alabama and Mississippi, have launched aggressive efforts. State development officials see the retirement industry as clean and economically profitable.

``A lot of people are beginning to wake up to the fact that this is a big business,'' says Dennis Wilkins, senior vice president and general manager of Sun City Hilton Head. ``It's an important business because there are more and more people moving toward retirement.''

Del Webb officials say their new project here will have a major impact on this economically depressed corner of South Carolina.

``We're going to spend $1 billion to build Sun City Hilton Head,'' says Glen McCaskey, a Del Webb vice president. ``After 10 years, people who have moved here will spend $1 billion in discretionary income. After 17 years, they will spend $1 billion every three years. No industry can touch that.''

Those who study migration patterns say Sun City's landing in South Carolina will likely attract other developers who have their eye on the retirement industry.

``It legitimates the area. It's like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,'' Longino says.

But, he adds, while Southeastern states are becoming more popular to retirees, it's unlikely they'll ever attract the numbers that Florida does. Longino says between 75 and 85 percent of seniors don't move when they retire. So states are actually competing for a small percentage of retirees.

At Sun City Hilton Head, salespeople have received 16,000 inquiries from people across the country. During a recent visit to the sales office on the site, the parking lot was full of cars with out-of-state tags, many from New York and New Jersey. Del Webb officials estimate they will sell between 200 and 250 homes this year.

Jim and Jean Blair, a couple from Marietta, Ga., have already bought one of the duplexes. They decided to move here because they like the amenities, which include golf courses, leisure trails, and a huge recreation center.

The Blairs used to live in Florida but didn't want to retire there. ``I didn't like living in Florida,'' Mr. Blair says during a break from picking out carpeting and kitchen cabinets.

``People are so rowdy there,'' he says. ``Here we'll be close to the ocean, but not too close. And I love the trees here.''

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